Bid specifications. The mere mention of those two words can send shudders down the spine of anyone who has ever been asked to create them. The process evokes thoughts of legalese, minimum acceptability, standards compliance and committees that can’t agree. And, once the pain of that process is complete, you get to send it all over to purchasing and start the pain all over again.
This may be what bid specifications have become, but what are they meant to be? For the purposes of discussion, we will juxtapose the differences by assuming we are specifying a flathead axe as well as a thermal imager.
Bid Specs: “Wants and Needs”
At their heart, bid specifications are supposed to be a method by which customers can communicate what they want and what they need in a way that multiple suppliers can evaluate their product offerings against the customers’ wants and needs to determine a fit. This effectively transfers some of the research and comparisons to the supplier to choose those products or models that meet the stated wants and needs of customers.
In the case of a flathead axe, this might contain statements such as: a hand-operated, non-powered striking tool configured with a weighted head at one end of a handle that contains a cutting surface opposing a striking surface. Low maintenance and ergonomics will be important to the selection process as will the balance between weight and performance. Offerings may be submitted to…
A thermal imager might say: a handheld thermal imager capable of seeing through smoke produced by any common combustible regardless of density produces a usable image under intense heat conditions. Utilizes a simplified colorization, alerting the user to certain abnormal temperature conditions. Operates greater than two hours on a single battery charge regardless of environmental conditions and has a display that is large enough to be viewed by more than one firefighter at a time. Low maintenance, overall durability, available training and service will all be important to the selection process.
These two examples are simply statements of needs, followed by wants. Minimums followed by preferences. Both matter.
At some point, these types of general bid specs failed to result in the department getting what it wanted. Somewhere along the line a department was forced, by legislation, process or purchasing procedure, to accept a product it did not want – usually because that product was the “low bid.”
Tech Specs: “Facts and Figures”
This failure of the “wants and needs” process gave rise to fire departments looking for ways to tighten up or close up the bid specification. Include so many details that most products don’t comply, leaving only the product you ultimately desired in the first place. Enter the technical specification.
The list of technical specifications can be endless and the more technical the product, the more intricate the specifications can be. These types of specifications can require an engineering degree to decipher or understand and even then can ultimately be confusing or meaningless, but they do have their desired effect. They set a bar against which other products can be evaluated and determined to meet or not meet.
The technical specification historically has been seen as the raising of the veil so that the customer could get right to the crux of the matter. In other words, answer the question without sales hype or marketing spin – could the product or couldn’t it? The advent of and reliance on technical specifications has created an interesting phenomenon. Many fire departments rely heavily on technical specifications to communicate wants and needs. The bid specs often look more like straight technical specifications with little explanation.
Our flathead axe specification might say that it needs to weigh no more than 128 ounces and be made of a non-conductive material. A thermal imaging specification might require that the imager be capable of displaying infrared information in the seven-to-15-micron range and exhibit a thermal sensitivity of 50 millikelvin.
This trend of relying on technical specifications has its drawbacks. The fire service has unwittingly transferred some of the decision-making process to the manufacturers. In turn, manufacturers, in their zeal to print or produce a differentiable technical specification sheet, have included more technical details than anyone can hope to understand and in some cases these technical specifications are actually wrong. I am aware of several times in the past year when a fire department produced a technical specification that it did not understand and ruled a product non-compliant, but when protested, could not explain why the product was non-compliant and ultimately had to accept a product it did not want.
What if I submitted an axe that met the above specifications only, 120 ounces of the allowed weight was in the handle (leaving only eight ounces in the head) and the head was made of injection-molded plastic as was the handle (non-conductive). That would not be an axe that I want to carry; however, it would meet the spec.
A Better Way?
The trend toward technical specification has generally been driven by concerns about running a proper and responsible purchasing program. When departments began to lose the needs-and-wants arguments, they resorted to technical facts and figures. Many felt that facts and figures made for an easy evaluation and easy determination of compliance; however, the issue is coming full circle. With tight budgets, many purchasing departments are becoming intimately involved in the selection process. With fewer opportunities around, some manufacturers have gotten adept at navigating and leveraging the rules and protest processes of purchasing programs. I am even aware of a manufacturer that convinced a purchasing protest board that the fire department did not need a feature it was requesting and secured the low-bid position.
There is a better way. In the interest of full-circle, why not go back to the wants and needs, but include the “why”? Take the time, within the specification, to briefly explain why this want or need is important. What role will it play? How can it help? Tell people why it is important. A purchaser can better understand the justification and a manufacturer who might otherwise seek to exploit the bid process would have to create an argument that your “why” is unjustified. That’s a lot harder to do in advance rather than after the fact in a protest procedure. Take the time to tell anyone who reads the specification why you need that particular feature.
I had a recent request to change the molded color of a hard-sided case. Such a request can cost a manufacturer additional money since it is not a normally-purchased item. But the customer explained that it carries the thermal imager in a compartment with a lot of other equipment and wants to be able to easily and immediately tell it apart from the other cases. On the surface, the request seems difficult, time consuming and costly; however, provided a half-sentence explanation, it sounds reasonable and necessary.
A large metropolitan department recently did exactly this. It produced a specification that detailed the features, functions, wants and needs, and included the whys. When I attended the pre-bid conference, the chief in charge of the selection committee, the committee head and the purchaser all explained exactly what they wanted. The purchaser was even able to explain why a feature was necessary and exhibited an intimate level of knowledge of the department’s desires. This led to a straightforward, take-no-bull approach. They knew what they wanted and that’s what they were going to purchase. No ambiguity. It was refreshing.
As you think about your next bid specification, think about what you really want to do. Is that need or want best described using a technical spec or a why statement? Both have their place, but reliance on a straight technical specification can lead you astray.
How many of you remember when buying a computer meant selecting the speed and manufacturer of the processor, how much cache memory versus RAM memory versus storage memory? Today, you are more likely to purchase a PC for gaming, or for business, or for personal use, because, in the end, it always comes back to why.
Why are you making this purchase? What are you trying to fix, accomplish or avoid? Whatever the reason, you, the customer, ought to be able to get exactly what it is that you both need and want.